Land of Waterfalls – The Great Smoky Mountains
We are attracted to waterfalls. I love the power and the beauty of powerful falls, but even finding a small waterfall cut into the rocks or created from melting snow gives me a thrill. It is a magical surprise, like when you see a rainbow. (Double points when a waterfall brings out a rainbow!) Plus, they often are the motivation I need to hike up a hill. Last year, we visited two areas in the Great Smoky Mountains and had plenty of opportunity to indulge our waterfall enthusiasm. A waterfall rich area with plenty of other incredible attractions, we highly recommend you add it to your must visit list.
On the North Carolina side of the Smokies, they boast of hundreds of waterfalls. Brevard alone is called the Land of Waterfalls with 250 falls. Some are famous as backdrops for movies like Hunger Games and Last of the Mohicans. And one, Sliding Rock isn’t technically a waterfall, but you feel like one when you slide down the water and across the rocks.
Waterfalls on the North Carolina side
On our first day exploring, we went for a drive through the Pisgah Forest. It was a little rainy, but the huge forest was turning green and full, as spring had started. Glass Falls, which is located just off the road, was our first destination. You can literally see it from the road, but get out and walk down the steps. There, you can feel like you are standing in the middle of the water as you feel and hear its power from the safe platform!
Side note: Pisgah National Forest was once part of the Biltmore Estate, owned by George Vanderbilt who also established the first schools of forestry in US. When his widow sold more than 86,000 acres to the federal government in 1914, they were among the first tracts of forest owned by federal government and established what became the US Forest Service. What a blessing that he conserved this beautiful area! It is a great day trip from Asheville.
One of the best hikes in North Carolina was up to and beyond Triple Falls. While we climbed to the top, there are plenty of great views of the falls and reasons to stop along the way. While steep in a few spots, it is very doable for all ages. I am not a great hiker, sticking to easy to moderate trails and taking lots of breaks, so you can use me as a good gauge. Once we got to the top, we continued along the fairly level trail to the covered bridge.
Another great falls is Soco Falls, a rare double fall close to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is easily reached and has a viewing platform about ten minutes down the well-marked trail.
Waterfalls on the Tennessee side
The Tennessee side is really considered the home of the Great Smoky Mountains and has the National Park Visitors Centers. The centers are really nicely kept and have lots of great information with friendly rangers to help you. This is a definite must stop if you are an ambitious hiker so you can get the updated maps and latest information on trail conditions. We stopped by to get my National Park passport stamp as well as do a little shopping (I have to support our National Parks). The Great Smoky Mountains are so large that there is not a designated entrance so no park fee. You can explore it for days and still find something new! We were there in the late fall, so got to see some of the beautiful fall foliage.
Our first outing was to the Roaring Forks area, just outside of Gatlinburg and home to acres of interesting history and natural beauty. We took the one way driving loop and enjoyed several of the stops along the way. With the leaves starting to fall and the cooler temperatures, it was a pleasant time to hike. We took the Trillium Gap Trail up to Grotto Falls, a fun waterfall that would be perfect on a hot day. You can walk behind the falls, where it is notably cooler and probably used on hot days to get soaked.The hike is about 3 miles round trip and fairly easy with a couple of slight inclines and a couple of creeks your cross on rocks that are flat and close together. You have pretty views of the valley below as you hike.
We continued the driving loop, enjoying the beauty of the trees and river, before visiting the site of the Bales family homestead. This small dogtrot home with its short barn and corncrib once housed eleven people. With the nearest supplies a full day or more journey up the steep mountain, the rocky terrain that made farming hard work, and the typical snowfall in the winter, the people who settled this area were a much hardier breed than me.
Another fairly easy waterfall to reach is Mingo Falls, one of the highest in the Park at 120 feet. It is technically right inside of Cherokee Nation land. After you park, it is a short walk through the parking lot to the stairs, then a climb straight up to the falls. Along the 300 or so steps, you can stop and get views of the river before you reach a platform that looks up to this pretty falls. The platform is fairly small, but it was quiet when I visited on a weekday. If you go on a busy weekend, you might want to get there early.
I also did a solo hike to Hen Wallow falls, a 90 foot waterfall. This hike was much longer at 4.4 miles roundtrip and the trail was rougher than I expected. While the fall is very tall, it is not as impressive as some others though it apparently freezes in winter creating a impressive ice formation. The hike through the forest of old-growth hardwoods was challenging but also fascinating with the enormous roots and the giant rock formations. There were plenty of areas to stop along the way (probably why it took me so long). I made friends with some fellow climbers as I left the parking lot, so I had company part of the way. (They were fascinated to learn I was a full-time RVer and had lots of questions.)
We skipped the incredibly popular Cades Cove as the Park Rangers meter the number of vehicles that can enter. At peak times, the cars are lined up for hours to enter, so go early if you want to do that loop or check for early morning hours for bicyclists only. Instead, we drove along the Middle Prong of the Little River in the Tremont area. The river is very popular with fishermen and has some lovely places to stop along the road. We drove all the way to the trailhead for pictures along the bridge and to walk around a little. It was mostly a lovely drive with scenic views of the river and trees.
There are several campground options in this region, many of which fill during peak season. I was never clear what they consider peak season as it feels like could be busy most of the year with its temperate weather and great attractions. Winter is likely less popular, but it could be a fun place to visit during the holiday season with the many festivals and activities. We visited the North Carolina side in early spring and enjoyed seeing all the blooms and trees leaf out. We were on the Tennessee side in late fall so were able to catch the end of peak color and enjoy their fall festival. I didn’t feel over crowded either time.
In North Carolina, we stayed south of Asheville at the Rutledge Lake RV Park. It is a smaller campground with slots being fairly close. but there is a small lake where you can fish and release, a cute camp store and a large recreation center. They also have free wifi and a nice laundry room. The pool was closed when we visited, but looked a good size. It was also very convenient for going south to some of the nearby small towns as well as north to Asheville and its many charms. If you go, ask for slots off the lake or one of the pull through spaces, which seemed a bit more roomy.
In Tennessee, we stayed at the Smoky Bear Campground and RV Park. It was also small, but we stayed on the outer loop and the trees created more privacy. The campground owners were super friendly and helpful. With its great location, we did not have to drive through Gatlinburg’s terrible traffic in order to explore the area. While I liked this campground better; when we return to this area, we’ll stay on the North Carolina side, near Asheville. This area seems to have more to offer us with abundant trails and drives as well as charming small towns. Gatlinburg (and nearby Pigeon Forge) is too touristy and geared to families with its many chain restaurants, adventure parks, and attractions.
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There is so much to see in this area, we only covered a small portion of the waterfalls and hikes. We didn’t even make it to some of the most popular sites like Clingman’s Dome. In another coming blog, we will talk about some of the other sites to see (more manmade) as there are so many reason to visit the area. Let me know what where your favorite hikes, waterfalls or outdoor areas. We will definitely be returning to this part of the country!
All photographs copyrighted by Benton Downs Photography.